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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Eric Hobsbawm

One of the books that made me want to become an academic historian was Eric Hobsbawm's The Age Of Revolution. It wasn't his fault that I reconsidered. Hobsbawm died in 2012. He was a Marxist scholar trying to explain all his life why and how things happened. His last book, Fractured Times, is a posthumously published collection of lectures and reviews in which he argues that the high culture of the European bourgeoisie is shriveling, swamped by today’s deluge of permanent, round-the-clock electronic entertainment, “the great simultaneous circus show of sound, shape, image, color, celebrity and spectacle that constitutes the contemporary cultural experience.” Addressing the Salzburg Festival, he cites as an example “the crisis in classical music, whose fossilized repertoire and aging public” mean that a once vital form is now reduced to a handful of great works repeated as if on a loop, performed in lavish but subsidized opera houses to a rich but diminishing audience. With a knack for the telling fact, he reports that the core public for live classical music in New York is estimated “at no more than some 20,000 people.”
With sentences like this Eric Hobsbawm is bidding farewell to a culture that has vanished over the course of his lifetime. This is not just an old man's cultural pessimism, but a very personal regret. Hobsbawm, born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1917, grew up in Austria and Germany. He was a schoolboy witness in Berlin the day Hitler was sworn in as chancellor. His departure from Germany was not solely a relief. It was also a loss. “Only those who have experienced the force, the grandeur and the beauty” of German culture, “which made the Bulgarian Jew Elias Canetti write in the middle of the Second World War that the ‘language of my intellect will remain German,’ can fully realize what its loss meant.”


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